Martyred Convert Leaves Widow, Five Children in Northern Iraq
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, March 14 (Compass) -- Kurdish Christian Ziwar Mohammed Ismaeel was
shot dead in front of his taxi stand last month in Zakho, the northern-most
city in the Kurdish safe-haven of Northern Iraq.
According to local security authorities, the Kurdish convert's self-confessed
murderer believed he was "fulfilling the will of Allah" by killing an apostate
from Islam. "I don't feel guilty for doing it," the killer told police
investigators after his arrest.
A taxi driver, Ismaeel was waiting in a line of taxis on the morning of
February 17 for his turn to load up passengers for the drive from Zakho to
Dohuk. About 8:30 a.m., a stranger approached the station and began talking
Fellow taxi drivers said that Ismaeel offered a cup of tea to the man, who then
began to demand loudly that Ismaeel deny his faith in Christ and come back to
When Ismaeel refused, saying he could not stop believing in Christ, the
stranger asked him to step aside and talk privately with him. Just seconds
later, eyewitnesses said, the man pulled out a machine gun and started shooting
point-blank at Ismaeel. A total of 28 bullets were pumped into Ismaeel's head
and chest before he fell to the ground, dying on the spot.
Throwing his gun at the slain Christian's body, the attacker shouted "Allahu
Akbar" ("God is greater," the first words of the Muslim call to prayer in
Arabic) and fled the scene on foot. Several taxi drivers chased and caught the
assailant, turning him over to local police.
The arrested assassin, later identified as Abd al-Karem Abd al-Salam, has been
jailed under the jurisdiction of the Dohuk governate. Said to be a member of
the Islamic Union, the murderer had spent two years in Afghanistan, and
reportedly carried a photograph of himself taken with renegade Afghan leader
Gulbuddin Hekmetyar. About 40 years of age, he is the father of 10 children.
According to the local chief of police, Abd al-Salam told investigators after
his arrest that the Prophet Mohammed had appeared to him in a dream, telling
him to kill Ziwar. Political and security officials are investigating the
killer's possible links with the handful of radical Islamist movements in the
Because Islamic law requires the execution of apostates who forsake Islam, some
townspeople in Zakho have said they expect Ismaeel's killer to be released
after completion of the criminal investigation. But despite the religious
sensitivities of the case, the local police chief has stated that he will
demand the death sentence for Abd al-Salam.
Northern Iraq's regional Kurdish administration encourages a tolerant form of
Islam, although it is officially secular.
Ismaeel, 38, had converted from Islam to Christianity seven years ago, after
reading a Bible given to him by a friend. "He just grabbed the truth and ran
with it," an expatriate Christian who had lived in the Zakho area in 1998 told
Compass. "He was always exhorting other Christians to be bold, to not be
Ismaeel's openness in talking about his new faith had prompted death threats by
some of his own relatives, who were initially advised by a Muslim prayer leader
that he should be killed as an apostate. But Ismaeel survived their attempts
and refused to go into hiding, declaring that he would never deny Christ, even
if his family killed him.
He was arrested two years ago when policemen found three Bibles in his car, and
again in May 2002 when police interrogators warned him that some people
objected to his Christian witnessing. Charges were not pressed against him in
Ismaeel is survived by his widow Layla and their five children, none of whom
have publicly converted to Christianity. The three sons (Zervan, Nachervan and
Ephraim) and two daughters (Hosan and Lozan) range in age from 18 years to an
infant born last September. The family had lived in a small housing development
on the outskirts of Zakho, where they had started a family project of raising
Local Christians said the three older children all quit going to school soon
after their father's death, intimidated by accusations from their schoolmates
that he was killed for becoming a Christian. "We decided to find them some
other school," a local pastor confirmed yesterday.
In the wake of Ismaeel's murder, the local Christian community has taken
responsibility for the care and support of his family, in mutual agreement with
the family's tribal leaders. Their commitment includes raising finances to buy
a house for Ismaeel's family and cover their living expenses, as well as help
the eldest son find a job.
"This family lost Ziwar because of the church, not because of any other
problem," the tribe told church leaders after the murder.
"So they are considering Ziwar's family as no longer from their tribe, but as a
part of our church," a local pastor explained to Compass. "The church now has a
good relationship with his wife and children, and with his brothers and
The family's agreement on this issue put to rest fears that some members of the
tribe might try to avenge Ismaeel's murder in an ongoing blood feud against
those they held responsible for his death. "When blood is shed here," a close
Christian friend of Ismaeel told Compass, "it is not just a cup of water."